Politico - It wouldn’t be the first time that President Donald Trump declined an invitation but showed up anyway.
The White House Correspondents’ Association is preparing for the possibility that the president will reconsider his terse Tweet from late February announcing that he wasn’t coming to their annual dinner on April 29.
"If President Trump changes his mind, he is welcome to attend the dinner,” association President Jeff Mason said in an email, though he declined to comment further on their preparations.
Trump’s decision to skip the dinner came in the midst of his escalating feud with many in the media, who he has deemed "fake news” and "the enemy of the American people.” Washington reporters are not counting on Trump’s reversal, but the upheaval has delayed announcements about how the association plans to cope with the first dinner in 36 years without the commander-in-chief.
There’s no indication yet of who, if anyone, will stand in for the president as guest of honor. Traditionally, along with members of the WHCA board, the president, first lady, the vice president, White House press secretary and the dinner’s entertainer sit at the head table on the stage. Any other administration officials come at the invitation of media companies who purchase tables for the event.
A White House spokesperson did not respond to questions about who, if anyone, from the White House plans to attend the dinner, or whether staffers are free to attend the dinner should they choose.
"There’s more uncertainties about this dinner later than other dinner,” said one veteran White House correspondent. "It’s unclear who, if anyone, will represent the administration.”
The correspondents association has also been slow to announce who the evening’s entertainment will be. In recent years, the latest that the evening's entertainer has been announced was February 20 in 2013, after Barack Obama's second election as president.
According to multiple people with knowledge of the matter, CBS "The Late Late Show” host James Corden, famous for his "Carpool Karaoke" bits, was offered the gig, but declined. CBS declined to comment. Other people close to the association suggest an entertainer has been chosen, but hasn’t been announced yet. Mason, widely praised by reporters and former WHCA presidents for handling the unusual situation with a calm grace, has been keeping the details of the evening close to the vest and declined to comment further.
The choice of entertainer is often a politically fraught one. Some comedians have said the correspondents' dinner is one of the most difficult gigs and full of potential pitfalls, no matter who the president is that year.
In a February interview in Vulture, Corden, who is British, spoke about trying to get a better understanding of American politics.
"I would hope that when I’ve lived here longer, I’d start to feel like I understand the political climate more. And we’ll find our voice in that,” he said. "I certainly feel like we have a voice and speak when we feel we need to. But following Stephen (Colbert, in the line up), we owe it to our audience to sit at the other end of the seesaw from time to time."
There’s also the lingering question of who from outside the Washington bubble will show up.
Typically, a Republican president attracts fewer celebrities than a Democrat, and Trump has received a new level of Hollywood scorn. But without his attendance, some have wondered whether celebrities will be more inclined to attend, embracing an event that Trump has snubbed.
But that doesn't seem to be the case. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the casts of the politics heavy shows like "House of Cards,” "Veep” and "Scandal,” regular attendees in previous years, likely will not attend.
Most outlets have been mum on who they’re inviting, especially since table allotments will not be revealed until next week. Some media executives have suggested that they’re focusing more on newsmakers, politicians and government officials for their guests.
Meanwhile, some people said it would be typical of Trump if he were to put his hosts through the awkward process of scrambling to make do without him before further upending the planning process by showing up.
In January, 2016, Trump did the unthinkable in politics, announcing his plans to skip a Republican primary debate. But Fox News, the host of the debate, still prepared a podium for him just in case he changed his mind.
Though Trump did not end up joining the debate, he has shown up to other events he declared dead on arrival in the past, such as a post-election meeting with The New York Times.
"President Trump is the master showman so he may decide to attend at the last minute, but I doubt it,” said C-SPAN political editor, anchor and former WHCA president Steve Scully.
The association may look to past precedent to see how to handle a dinner without the president. Ronald Reagan was the last president not to attend a dinner, but it was in 1981 shortly after he was shot, and he phoned in an address. (Then-Vice President George H. W. Bush attended in his place and gave an address.) The last president to sit out the dinner by choice was Jimmy Carter, who skipped two out of the four dinners of his term.
On one of those occasions, then-White House Press Secretary Jody Powell spoke in Carter’s place, while Carter went fishing at Camp David. On another occasion, Powell said Carter was too tired to attend and filled in again, according to former WHCA president and National Journal White House Correspondent George Condon who is writing a book about the history of the association.
"The [replacement] that was probably the most popular was in 1972 when former President Richard Nixon sent the first lady, Pat Nixon,” Condon said. "The least successful substitutes by far was Jody, who filled in for Carter 1978 and 1980. If you read Carter’s diary entries he wanted to send a message on how much he disliked the press and how much he hated the dinner. He said in his diaries Jody Powell was begging him to go to the dinner. And he ordered Powell to kind of be nasty in his speech and it was anti-press and not very fun speech in 1978. It was a miserable dinner.”
Trump has already skipped two other Washington institutions this year, the Alfalfa Club and Gridiron Club dinners, though presidents do not always attend those dinners. Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence in his place to both events, and Pence's comedic speech to the Gridiron received rave reviews. Spokespeople for Pence did not respond to questions about his attendance about the correspondents' dinner.
When Trump announced he was not attending the Gridiron, the scheduling office sent quick word that Pence would take his place, Condon said. He noted that vice presidents are always invited to the correspondents' dinner, but that during the Obama years Vice President Joe Biden often did not attend. (Condon said Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and Al Gore often attended the dinners.)
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As for other White House staffers, Condon, who has also served as the Gridiron Club historian, said he’d be surprised if they did not attend the correspondents’ dinner.
"Based on the reaction we saw to the Gridiron Dinner invitations I’d be surprised if they didn’t want to go,” Condon said. "We saw little sign of people from the White House canceling because the president wasn’t coming."
Some media companies are using the event to make a statement. CNN has declared that in place of the government officials, politicos and celebrities, it is inviting journalism students. The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Bloomberg have all pulled out of their parties that were held before and after the dinner (though Bloomberg said it’s still attending the dinner itself). Outlets including The New York Times and BuzzFeed have longstanding policies about not attending the event. (BuzzFeed throws an alternate party during the dinner.)
But other companies are operating as normal.
Ultimately, several of the former WHCA presidents said the event should go on, and focus on what it’s meant to focus be — an occasion to present awards to journalists, give scholarships to students, and show respect for the the presidency.
"Don’t turn it into a seminar or protest movement,” Condon said. "It was designed in 1921 as a fun evening where people go and enjoy themselves and that has to be at the heart of it."